Thursday, November 25, 2010

For Phyllis

This seems to be my day to blog! Three, or two and a half, in 12 hours. It's the Prednisone!

A friend in New York City sent me a message this morning after reading my Sondheim blog, about the time she was taken backstage at City Opera to meet Phyllis Curtin after a performance of Carlyle Floyd's Susannah. She had been enchanted by Phyllis's performance. Well, who wasn't enchanted by Phyllis? Anyway, I forwarded Lily's email to Phyllis at once and got a sweet reply. Susannah has been playing a part in my life recently since one of my students has been performing 'Ain't it a pretty night' in concert with me.

Phyllis and I have been friends for a good long time. I heard many of her performances at City Opera and at the Met as well as places like Sanders Theatre at Harvard. She may shoot me for telling this story, but at Sanders,some years ago, she was performing Pierrot Lunaire. For some reason I was seated in the front row, just at the level of her feet. With her usual elegance she sailed through that difficult work with blazing colors, looking cool as a cucumber. I was impressed that in the open-toed shoes she was wearing, I could see her great toe keeping accurate time throughout the performance. The ultimate artist, but you still have to count.

I heard Phyllis sing Vittorio Giannini's Taming of the Shrew more times that just about any one, I think. My good friend, Dorothy Fee, a composer and kindergarten teacher in Newark at the time, was Vittorio's librettist for the opera. Actually, of course, Shakespeare was the librettist.

Dorothy told Vittorio that she was not going to try to match words with the Immortal Bard. So she lifted words from Romeo and Juliet,  and from the Sonnets when Vittorio would call and say, 'Dottie, I have to have more words. The music is still happening in this aria and I'm out of words!'. Dorothy would go on a poetic search through the works of The Bard of Avon (whoever he really was) and come up with appropriate texts.

The reason I saw Shrew so many times is that Dorothy attended every performance that year and I went along as her escort. I think that Phyllis sang every performance but one, when the wife of the baritone (whose name I can't remember) sang, not all that well. I heard them all.

I also saw her in Susannah many times that same season. I can still see her leaning back on the rooftop of the house, her long dark hair trailing, singing 'Ain't it a pretty night?', stage moonlight giving her a warm glow that was matched by her golden voice.

Later I saw her at the Met and other venues, got to know her personally, and often attended her master classes at Tanglewood. Several of my students were in those classes over the years. So we have shared teaching responsibilities.

We also shared the same teacher. Olga Averino, whose name has appeared many times in these pages was a great mentor to me, as I'm sure she was to Phyllis. There is a wonderful tribute to Olga on You Tube now, if you'd like to take a look. It was put together by her grandsons.

Phyllis will be celebrating her birthday on December 3rd. Why don't you all send her a Happy Birthday card? She is an amazing musician and I feel lucky to have known her all these years.

Phyllis this is my birthday card to you! Happy, Happy, Birthday!! Go girl!


After going back to bed for a while at about 5:30 a.m., it occurred to me that since imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, it could be that the gasping ladies in my blog about the Stephen Sondheim birthday bash last night are trying to emulate Elaine Stritch's shtick. If so, they missed the mark. She is the alpha and omega of this style of performing.

It is the same thing that happened with Edith Evans, who did the definitive Lady Bracknell in the first film version of The Importance of Being Earnest  Ever since then, everyone has tried to outdo her rendition of the phrase 'A handbag?????'. No one ever has. She and Elaine would make a great pair.

Judy Dench wisely avoided comparison by sort of muttering the phrase in the more recent film version.

Read on below-

Happy Birthday to You

I am blogging at four in the morning today because the Predisone I am taking for my annual Fall Sinus Event wakes me up raring to go about three hours before my usual rising time.

Last night I caught some of the 80th Birthday tribute to Stephen Sondheim. He is surely one of the great Broadway composers of our lifetime. We are also the same age, so even though I don't know him, I feel that we have something in common. Our Golden Years, and we're still here!

I missed the first part of the show and came in on the scene from Sweeney Todd when Patti Lupone, as Mrs. Lovatt, was croaking her way through 'It's Priest', with George Hearn and Michael Cervaris as sort of cloned Sweeneys. ('Send in the Clones?).The men were tolerable but Patti needs vocal help! Give me a call!

Then, a dark-haired young woman, whose name I don't know, sang a song I really didn't know. I think it was from Sondheim's first show. She sang it in the manner that Sondheim apparently likes, spitting out bits of the song in a disjointed manner, rather then using the motto that will be on my tombstone, Just Sing the Damned Song!! This  kept happening over and over as several of the others sang or rather, croaked, in disjointed phrases. 

Patti then had the cojones to sing 'The ladies who lunch' with Elaine Stritch sitting there stony-faced, often in camera view. I don't blame you, Elaine. Having just seen you in A Little Night Music on Broadway a week ago, and blogged about your performance, there should be a law that prohibits anyone but you from singing this song. Patti hollers, grimaces and fights her way vocally through the piece.

Marin Mazzi, one of the women who actually sang, rather than choked out the song, gave us her version of 'Losing my mind', which was excellent.

Audra McDonald beautifully sang 'The Glamorous Life'. This lady knows how to sing. I just wish she would take deeper breaths. It's a very fine instrument.

Donna Murphy was equally good singing 'Could I Leave You?' She built the dramatic tension just right and gave it the dramatic finish it needs to come across.

Bernadette Peters sang 'Not a Day Goes By' in the Sondheim approved style of belching out chunks of phrases while looking sad. I already have commented on Bernadette's one dimensional singing and acting in my blog on the current Broadway production of A Little Night Music.  Where is Glynis Johns when we need her? This style of singing (croaking?) may be fine for you, Mr. Sondheim, but to my taste I would rather hear songs actually sung!

Then, the icing on Stephen's birthday cake, Elaine Stritch, all 84 years of her, strode to center stage and simply showed the others how to do it by performing 'I'm Still Here'.  And is she ever! I think I have fallen in love with this woman, even though she is a bit older than I; apparently, she can do no wrong. She is what Broadway used to be all about- truth, in acting, and truth in singing or sing-talking. I think I first heard her in the 50's singing 'Zip' in a revival of Pal Joey. She stopped the show then and, a half century later, did it again last night!

When I first began seeing Broadway musicals actually on Broadway, instead of with touring companies that came to the Bijou Theatre in Battle Creek, no singers were amplified. Amazingly, you actually had to be able to stand up there and sing and be heard in the last row of the balcony all your own, to be cast in a show. All the singers of that era had legitimate voices that carried to the last row of the balcony in any theatre. I can't exactly remember the date when everyone began wearing body mikes in their hair, their bosom, or wherever else they could be tucked. It was at that point in the history of musical theatre that glamorous movie stars, many of whom couldn't sing at all, became the norm on the Broadway musical stage. Star name recognition sells tickets. It also meant that you had to look closely to see whose lips were moving at any given moment to identify which actor was singing. All of the sound came from one source.

If they had ever put one of these mikes on Ethel Merman, she would have blown out the back wall of the theatre! She actually did that several times, I am sure!

So, 'Here's to the Ladies who Sing'. And to the ladies who can't. Keep showing them how to do it, Elaine!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A commercial message

We will be spending part of the winter in Vero Beach, Florida. I will have a piano at our house and would be happy to do some voice teaching while I'm there. If you know of singers in that area who might like to work with me, please ask them to email me either at  or through my website

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Perils of an Accompanist

Last night I performed a concert in Hartford, CT with an exceptional soprano, Kathleen Callahan. Kate has been studying with me since last June and has made enormous progress. She came to me with a gorgeous voice and a fine background in vocal study: The Eastman School and Juilliard. The problem was, as a student of mine from many years ago (who wound up at the Met, incidentally) used to say: 'The voice had her, rather than her having the voice.'

This is not unusual with large, voluptuous voices. Often singers with this kind of instrument get by on their wonderful sound alone. As Olga Averino used to say, having heard a gorgeous, big voice: 'Now, what else can you do?' In short, any singer, whatever her vocal endowments, must have a wide range of sounds- volume, color, vocal range, emotional involvement. The voice alone is never enough.

This is what Kate and I set out to determine beginning last summer. Last evening proved that we are on the right track. She opened the concert with 'Ain't it a Pretty Night' from Carlyle Floyd's Susanna, much of which depends on pianissimo high singing. I still have fond memories of Phyllis Curtin singing this in the first performances of this opera at the old City Center on 55th Street.

She also sang 'The Willow Song' from Verdi's Otello, which has some of the same requirements. While she can certainly provide the forte climaxes in both of these arias, she has now learned how to produce an effortless pianissimo, even on high 'A's' and 'B's'. This is what happened last night to the delight of the audience, as well as to that of her teacher. Her songs by Rodrigo, Strauss, Duparc, and Copland also benefited from this new ability that she is mastering.

Last night the problem was her teacher and accompanist- Moi! I was suffering from an acute allergy attack. Somehow when using both hands on the piano keyboard, it is almost impossible to take care of the symptoms of an allergic reaction. To put it bluntly, I was performing with a very runny nose! Remember the one-armed paper hanger with the itch?? I was somehow able to hold back a couple of sneezes until we got to the really loud parts of several pieces when, thanks to her enormous voice and the volume of the piano at the moment, I could release a muffled sneeze or two that I hope did not bother the audience. I think that this is the first time I have ever performed with some kind of cold or allergy when my adrenaline did not shut off this condition. Must be old age?

All in all, my condition did not adversely affect our performance; it just presented me with a challenge I had never had to face before. Now I know why Pavarotti always carried that big handkerchief! I may start doing likewise.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Two for the Show

We have just returned from several days in New York City. Ostensibly our reason for the trip was to hear the brilliant young violinist, Yevgeny Kutik. The Ferris Burtis Foundation has been helping Yevgeny in his education and career for a number of years and I try to attend as many of his performances as possible.

It turns out that we got two brilliant performers for the price of one. On Tuesday night we were able to get tickets for Stephen Sondheim's brilliant piece of musical theatre, A Little Night Music, which is based on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, which, in turn, is based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Not a bad plot line!

An excellent cast portrayed the various characters in the play. But the standout was eighty-four year old Elaine Stritch as Madame Armfeldt! Talk about investing one's self in a role, she commanded the stage in each of her appearances. In 'Liasons', she was on stage alone for a good seven minutes mesmerizing us poor mortals in the audience. I don't know when I've been more captivated and moved by a performance.

From the rest of the cast I especially admired Stephen R. Buntrock, who played and sang the part of Fredrik Egerman. Both his singing and acting were superb.

The one fly in the ointment was Bernadette Peters, cast as Desirée Armfeldt, but actually playing Bernadette Peters. She has a limited dramatic range. As Alexander Wolcott once said of Tallulah Bankhead: 'She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.' The original production, which I saw in 1973, starred Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, and Hermione Gingold in the leading roles. Bernadette is no Glynis, trust me.

But that Elaine! What a trouper! What a performer! I guess when you have been doing something for as long as she has, you just know how to get it right. She's a remarkable lady!

Then on Wednesday night, going from the sublime to the even more sublime, we heard Yevgeny Kutik in concert at The National Arts Club in Gramercy Park.

This historic building, once the home of Samuel Tilden, is not the ideal place to hold a concert. The concert room is a rectangular space with folding chairs, much like the concerts I hold in my music studio. But Yevgeny surmounted all odds, playing like a cross between an angel and a demon. Opening with several Preludes from Opus 34 of Shostakovich, and continuing  with Beethoven's Sonata # 3, Largo from the Bach third Sonata for Solo Violin, the amazing Schnittke Sonata No. 1, two excerpts for solo violin from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and ending with the Wieniawski Polonaise No. 1, Op. 4. It was a brilliant program in every way.

His fleet-fingered pianist was Akira Eguchi, who played very well but I much prefer the work Yevgeny does with his long-time piano partner, Tim Bozarth. Familiarity breeds other things besides contempt. 

One distraction was the fact that in a near-by room some group was having a lively, and very audible, dinner party.This bit of poor planning on the part of the National Arts Club distracted me, as I'm sure it did many others in the audience, but Yevgeny has the ability to go so deeply into the music that a bomb could go off and he would not hear it. What an amazing young man. And what an incredible musician. What amazing concentration! Now I want to hear him in Alice Tully Hall and Jordan Hall and with a major symphony. He is more that ready for the big time.

So we heard two performers, born almost a century apart, whose commitment to their art is so enormous that they can bring their audience completely into their heart and hold them there. Bravo to both of them.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Come to the Cabaret!

Recently I have been performing a series of Cabaret performances with my long-time friend and student Peggy. She is a classical singer who has flown the heights of The Queen of the Night, but who can also sing show tunes convincingly. I, at 80 and a half, am amazed that I have any voice at all, but if Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook can still do it, so can I.

A number of my students have sung both classical and show songs but that doesn't work for all voices. Men have an easier time going from opera to pop than women, especially women opera singers. There are several disastrous examples of Divas trying to let their hair down and 'get with it'. Renée Fleming's cross-over albums attest to this fact. Eileen Farrell, who had a much bigger voice than Renée, made the switch brilliantly.

I tell my students who sing show, pop, and even rock, that your technique must not change when singing a different type of song. It is really a matter of style.

One of my students has his own band, for instance. He also is a soloist in church and has done regional theatre successfully. He told me only yesterday that in the past his voice would tire when singing with his band. It no longer does that. He has learned a good, free technique which he can adapt to what ever kind of music he is singing.

Years ago a young woman came to me with serious vocal problems. She had been singing rock for a number of years and her vocal cords were threadbare. It took a long time and a lot of convincing, but I finally got her to sing on a lower breath and a much better technique and she was vocally happy for the first time in a long while.

Early music singers for a long time, especially the sopranos, sang with what Anna Russell called the 'British Pure White Tone'. This is popular to this day, unfortunately, with some choral conductors who expect forty year old women to sing like six year old boys. Here it's all a matter of vibrato. Any voice with absolutely no vibrato is a voice that is being held. Vibrato  is a natural result of the muscles of the larynx working (involuntarily, by the way) and the air passing between the vocal cords. Thank Heaven, along came Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who proved that one can sing early music with a full rich tone and be perfectly in the correct musical style for the period.

We only have one set of vocal cords. They are endlessly adaptive if one uses them properly with a low breath and a free technique. So- Cabaret-Smabaret.

Just sing the damned song!